Taoism or Daoism?

The English language uses the Roman alphabet to make a phonetic transcription of the way words sound. Chinese, in contrast, uses characters that mostly convey the meaning of a word, not its pronunciation. About 5,000 characters are in common usage, and it usually takes only one or two characters to convey the equivalent of an English word. In spoken Mandarin Chinese, each written character is pronounced using one of only 214 syllables, but the pronunciation of that syllable varies according to the dialect throughout China. A further complication lies in the fact each syllable can be pronounced using a variety of tones, which also vary from dialect to dialect. The result is that the 1.2 billion Chinese people share a common written language, but many different spoken languages.

There are two common systems for representing Chinese using Roman letters. Both systems attempt to convey the pronunciation that is used in Modern Standard Chinese, commonly called Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic of China. The older system, called Wade-Giles after its inventors, is common in Taiwan and the United States. The newer system, called Hanyu pinyin, or just Pinyin for short, was developed by Chinese people for use in China, and is now increasingly common throughout the world. This book uses the Hanyu pinyin system throughout the text, but includes the Wade-Giles version in the glossary of Chinese terms on page 230. The Chinese character for “Way” is romanised as “Tao” in the Wade-Giles system, and from this older romanisation system came the English word Taoism.

In the more modern Hanyu pinyin system, however, Tao becomes Dao. The sound they both intend to convey is like the Dow of the Dow-Jones Index, though slightly more aspirated. When Western scholars started to use the newer romanisation system, they also had to decide whether to keep using the older English term “Taoism” or to coin a new word “Daoism.” Many scholars prefer the more familiar term “Taoism” arguing that it is now an English word in its own right and should not be affected by changes in linguistic fashions. The term “Daoism” is, however, becoming increasingly popular. One recent book that I co-edited, Daoism and Ecology, contains an important explanation for the adoption of the new term, namely that “earlier discussions of the Daoist tradition were often distorted and misleading—especially in terms of the special Western fascination with the ‘classical’ or ‘philosophical’ Daode jing [Tao-te-ching] and the denigration and neglect of the later sectarian traditions” (Girardot, Miller and Liu 2001: xxxi). I follow this lead and use the word “Daoism” in order to distinguish itself from what “Taoism” represented in the twentieth century Western imagination.

[Adapted from Daoism: A Beginner's Guide]